Teacher Katie Burrows-Stone started simply.
“On Jan. 6, 2021, a terrible thing happened,” began a prompt she wrote for her students at Science Leadership Academy-Beeber in West Philadelphia. “Today, we are the people that lived through history that will be remembered, and because of that, our voices matter.”
On the day after rioters stormed the Capitol, teachers across the country grappled with how best to help students make sense of what happened, often shelving previously written lesson plans to lead young people through content about American history happening in real time.
As Philadelphia Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. watched the events unfold Wednesday, he thought about how tough it could be for his teachers to lead lessons on the interruption of the peaceful transfer of power: Many adults felt scared by what unfolded at the Capitol.
But he wanted to make sure everyone teaching the public school system’s 120,000 students gave them “the space, the time, the permission, the trust, the support to talk about what they observed, the emotions it generated, the questions they had,” Hite said. “They need to reconcile how and what they have been learning about democracy and citizenship with what they saw yesterday.”
For Burrows-Stone, a district English teacher, the jumping-off point was an assignment that allowed her 11th graders to write a poem about the events, to talk about how they were feeling, or to record their own history of the day. Burrows-Stone allowed her students to opt out of the conversation if they didn’t want to join, but most were eager to share.
It wasn’t the first time, after all, that they’ve had to process trauma during virtual school: These are teenagers who recently lived through civil unrest in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police, and more recently, protest after Philadelphia police shot and killed Walter Wallace Jr., a Black man who wielded a knife in West Philadelphia.
The students were aghast at the sights and stories coming out of the Capitol, Burrows-Stone said, but wanted to talk about a way forward.
“They had such wise things to say about the need to listen, about the need to be an ally, to challenge people that have problematic ideas, to not just have performative activism in social media, but to be an activist in relationships with real people,” she said.
Megan Langman, an English teacher at Cherry Hill High School West, had planned a lesson on Romeo and Juliet for Thursday. Instead, she gave her freshmen the option to talk about what unfolded in Washington. About half, roughly a dozen, many students of color, wanted to unpack the Capitol breach.
“They needed to talk and they needed to hear from each other,” said Langman.
She said she plans to broach the topic again Friday when her Holocaust and genocide class meets. Some protesters at the siege were wearing clothing with anti-Semitic phrases.
“We are watching history,” said Langman. “We are studying history.”
During his sixth-grade social studies class at Wagner Middle School in West Oak Lane, Hayden O’Rourke showed students a chart of the political spectrum: liberal, moderate, conservative, and extremes on both sides.
“What we may have seen, based on reports, is people on the extreme right, trying to take down the Capitol building,” O’Rourke told students. “What’s your definition of a leader? Should the president be doing this, or should he be doing something else?”
One by one, the Wagner sixth graders unmuted themselves and spoke up: This isn’t how a leader acts, they said. A leader inspires his people to do the right thing. They also wanted to talk about how the insurrectionists were able to breach a seat of American government.
“I’m pretty sure if it was a group of Black people going [to the Capitol], they would not even get close to it,” one girl said. “They would see us as a threat and they would probably teargas us.”
The disparity in treatment of Black protesters this summer and the pro-Trump white mob came up in most discussions.
But some classes chose not to touch the events.
Throughout Anne Griffin’s morning Thursday — a virtual cap-and-gown assembly for seniors at suburban Radnor High School, followed by Zoom classes — no one brought up the prior day’s events.
Griffin, 18, found the omission “unbelievable.”
Between the pandemic and social justice movement that swept the nation this summer, “this was never going to be a normal time to graduate,” said Griffin. “Then you have terrorism at the Capitol yesterday. You just wonder, how can this be the priority now? The bell rings and you go to your next class.”
Jenna Ahart, a senior at Unionville High School in Chester County, said she wished schools were doing more to help students, many of whom are “having their first encounter with politics,” navigate credible sources.
”So many kids get their news from social media. There’s so much speculation happening right now,” said Ahart, 17.
David Fortin, a history teacher at St. Joseph’s Prep, began his lesson by discussing the facts. Most students were “appalled,” Fortin said, but some were giving Fortin pushback. The Prep sits in North Philadelphia, but many of its students come from suburban and affluent families, and some students said initially that the thefts and violence that occurred after Floyd’s death were worse than the Trump supporters’ insurrection.
Ultimately, Fortin said, his job is to help students sift through misinformation and understand the historical and political significance of what happened Wednesday.
“I said, ‘Guys, this is unprecedented — this didn’t even happen in the Civil War,’” said Fortin. “They’re just trying to wrap their heads around it. This was going after the foundations of our government.”
Though her students are young, Angela Chan, a third-grade teacher at Jackson Elementary in South Philadelphia, felt honor bound to discuss the storming of the Capitol.
“I said that Donald Trump believed the election was stolen, but that was not true, but he encouraged other people to keep him in power using information that was not true,” said Chan. “The kids said that was scary, and it was scary that they saw guns.”
The students talked about the civil rights movement and read an essay by John Lewis. They talked about peaceful protests. And when she gave them the opportunity to come back to an optional meeting in the afternoon, six kids wanted to keep talking.
“I am exhausted,” Chan said, “but I was uplifted.”